"'I Was Me': Yvonne Burke and the Politics of Representation" in It’s Our Movement Now: Black Women’s Politics and the 1977 National Women’s Conference

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Chapter in a Book

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Leading up to the 1977 National Women’s Conference, ten press briefings were held around the country to raise awareness and support for the gathering. In Los Angeles, California, the two people tasked to be the public faces of the IWY Conference were the actress Jean Stapleton and Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, a member of Congress representing L.A.’s 28th District. Stapleton, selected as an IWY commissioner, was most famous to audiences around the country for her role as Edith Bunker on the hit sitcom All in the Family. But Burke brought her own star power. As one of the first Black women to be elected to Congress, and as the first representative to give birth while serving, Burke garnered significant national attention in the 1970s. When she was introduced on stage in Houston in November by Chair Mary Anne Krupsak, many people in the audience would have been familiar with the California Democrat.

Throughout her time in Congress, Burke used the novelty of her very presence as a Black woman politician to garner public attention for issues related to gender and racial equality. Her commitments to women’s rights and Blacks’ rights were inextricable—less two overlapping concerns than one unified agenda against interlocking discrimination, rooted in her embodied experiences as both Black and female. A high-profile professional mother, Burke did not shy away from serving as a public symbol of a new era for women. Where others often noted her many historic “firsts,” in her frequent speeches and writings, Burke reframed her own successes by contextualizing them within a longer history, demanding her audiences make progress toward equality. Explicitly locating herself along a genealogy of feminist and antiracist activism, connected both to forbearers in the past and potential successors in the future, Burke embraced her role as a trailblazing “symbol of the new wave in politics.